Already in need of a wake-up call
On Sept. 11, 2016, the Atlanta Falcons opened at home against Tampa Bay. They lost 31-24, and that was with them scoring the final 11 points. The Buccaneers were working under new head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith, both of whom had previously served with the Falcons.
To this observer, Game 1 of 2016 was a rancid continuation of the second half of the 2015 season, wherein the Falcons crashed from a 6-1 start under new coach Dan Quinn to an 8-8 finish. They missed the playoffs when it was nigh-impossible to miss the playoffs. Quinn retained Kyle Shanahan even as the watching world and yours truly in particular had decided he was absolutely the wrong offensive coordinator for Matt Ryan.
With their next five games against Oakland, New Orleans, Carolina, Denver and Seattle — four of the five on the road! — those Falcons were staring at the real possibility of an 0-6 start. I wasn’t alone in thinking they were done before they’d really started, but I was surely among the most strident. “They’ve become a bad team,” I averred, a sentence about which I can only say, for the thousandth time.
That “bad team” became the NFC champ, and only a series of unfortunate events kept it from hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. Up until the final 17 minutes of the Super Bowl, Shanahan’s work was the gold standard for inspired play-calling. Not incidentally, Ryan was the MVP.
On one of Quinn’s Tell-The-Truth Mondays, I’m not going to lie. The Falcons’ showing against Minnesota recalled the Tampa Bay game in its comprehensive ineptitude. They trailed by 14 points after 7 minutes. They trailed by 28 with 10 minutes remaining. In a league where comebacks are the weekly norm, the Vikings sat on the ball for nearly the entire second half. The final score was 28-12. The stats made it look better than that. It wasn’t.
It was a bad game, yes. But it was — as much as anything, I’m reminding myself — only one game. The Vikings are a difficult opener. U.S. Bank Stadium is among the tougher places to play. The Falcons are working under three new coordinators, one being the head coach, who’s doing double duty. (We note that Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer also calls his defense, to good effect.) They’d redone their offensive line. This doesn’t excuse the loss, though it might help explain.
“Might,” I said, and here I underscore the obvious: The Falcons didn’t fire three coordinators as Step 1 in a gradual rebuild. They fired three coordinators because those who matter — meaning Quinn but mostly Arthur Blank — decided their players were better than their coaching. (Having spent two years saying the same thing, I wasn’t inclined to disagree.) But firing three coordinators meant the Falcons aren’t looking long-term.
Over the past three years, they made Devonta Freeman, then Ryan and then Julio Jones the highest-paid players at their positions. They spent big to keep Grady Jarrett. They believe they have the talent to reach another Super Bowl. The onus is on these coordinators to bring that talent to bear.
Said Quinn on Sunday, in one of the understatements of the age: “It certainly didn’t go like we planned.”
Also: “We’ve got to address these issues and get that fixed.”
Trouble was, Sunday’s loss wasn’t a single failure. It was systemic. Everything reeked. (Yes, the defense yielded 98 yards passing. That’s because the Vikings deigned to throw only 10 passes.) Quinn had to call a third-quarter timeout — when you’re endeavoring to rally from three touchdowns down, you need to save those — because he didn’t have the proper defenders on the field for first-and-goal. Then the TO burned, Dalvin Cook scored anyway.
We saw again what we’ve known all along: Ryan isn’t the same quarterback when pressured. This isn’t a criticism specific to him; no quarterback is the same when he’s being buffeted. The addition of four offensive linemen — two via the draft, two in free agency — was designed to address this salient matter.